Then again, even without the 2014/15 heartbreak very much in the forefront of my mind, there’d still be that dreaded, very rational fear of a certain stadium.
Yes, Wembley *shudder*.
Beautiful she may be, but she’s a cruel temptress. Not only does she make you work hard to get there, she also makes you suffer along the way. Nails bitten, nerves shredded, and even when you eventually experience the unbridled joy of success, reaching her with hope and expectancy she only goes and chews you up and spits you out mercilessly.
Well in our experience anyway.
Of course though, we’ve got to negotiate a two-leg tie with Aston Villa first.
As expected, following Sunday’s draw at Portman Road, we face Steve Bruce’s charges. With a top six spot already sewn up, the game against Ipswich was seen by some to be a bit of a dead rubber. Not a view I totally subscribed to, but I could definitely understand why some would look at it that way. That said, there was still the small matter of our play-off opponents to be decided, and for long periods throughout the game it looked like we would be facing Fulham.
Some fans were spooked by the prospect, but why?
Whilst I wanted the win, or at least a draw so we finished as high as possible, keeping the unbeaten run and momentum going, it wouldn’t have been a major disaster had we lost. But for some, the relief of that Patrick Bamford goal was evident. I was relieved, but only because I hate losing. Had we finished sixth then I’d have been disappointed, but certainly not afraid of what was to come.
Bring them all on I say.
If The Cottagers are so good that we’re running scared of them, getting past Villa is only going to see us facing them at Wembley anyway. Christ, if you’d have been frightened of them now, I can assure you that you’d feel much worse facing them in the final given the venue and all that goes with it.
Basically, it was always going to be tough no matter who we ended up being paired with. As it happens we’ve got Villa. I’m certainly not jumping for joy nor feeling any more positive than I would’ve been had we been pitted against Slavisa Jokanvic’s men, or indeed Cardiff for that matter.
And anyway, why bother concentrating on who we’re playing, let the others worry about that, let them worry about us.
That’s right, we’re no pushovers, and we’re certainly no underdogs in this play-off shootout. We’re Middlesbrough Football Club, not some plucky minnows who’ve managed to squeeze in on the final day. I can’t imagine any of the other three teams will relish facing us. Given the run of form we’re on, the resilience shown after that awful display at Sheffield United a few weeks back, and the level of performances put in by key players of late, we’re more than a match for anyone.
However, whilst I’m positive, I’m also a realist. It’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be nerve-wracking, and it’s going to be less than straightforward. The Brenford semi-final three years ago, despite the aggregate score line suggesting otherwise, was hardly routine. This time round it’ll be even further away from that.
After the season we’ve had up to now our expectations have been tempered somewhat. It’s not exactly what we’d wished for, far from it in fact. Given this scenario at the start of the season you’d have taken it, but with major disappointment. We wanted automatic promotion, not the heartbreak fest that is the play-offs. Also, we’d spoke big, spent big, we were the division’s major scalp.
Anything less than a top two finish was written off as unacceptable, not good enough, yet now I’d say most fans are just happy to see us still in with a fighting chance.
That’s because we’ve had to recalibrate our aspirations. For all the wanting Garry Monk to see the season out, I accept the likelihood is we’d have come up short had he not felt the tap on the shoulder from Steve Gibson. Tony Pulis’ seemingly odd-timed arrival was actually perfectly executed. He’s given direction to a squad that appeared to have no idea what was expected of them from game to game, however it’s not all been plain sailing for the Welshman.
Very early on in his reign it was obvious we’d have to settle for a play-off spot at best. Ironically it was against Aston Villa I’d say our automatic promotion hopes ended, falling 10 points short of second-placed Derby after a late 1-0 reverse at home in Pulis’ first game in charge.
His introduction though has been a generally positive one, punctured slightly with the odd rank bad day at the office (think Burton, Cardiff, Sheff United first half), but he’s done enough to bring fans back from the brink of apathy. He’s galvanised the squad, added some talent (Mo Besic most notably) and got us believing again, giving us a team to be proud of.
He’s brought the best out of the likes of Dani Ayala, Patrick Bamford and most notably Adama Traore. Players who looked devoid of confidence before his arrival, they now look like world beaters. Game changers who have literally done just that – without Pulis you do wonder what their Boro futures would’ve looked like.
Tying up play-off qualification with a week to spare was seen as an achievement, a definite indication of how much has changed over the course of the campaign. In reality it is an achievement given what’s gone before, but it’s also a timely reminder to those who demand we steamroller our way through these play-offs that we’re not going to have it easy.
However, acknowledging it’s going to be tough but also being positive about our chances doesn’t represent a conflict of feelings, just means I’m haven’t lost sight of what’s real.
It’s been said by many, me included, about how it won’t be any great disaster if we don’t make it up this season. It may feel like it in the immediate aftermath of any defeat, but on reflection we’ll sit back and realise that actually the world hasn’t ended, that we’ll go again. But the fact we’re still in with a shout of a return to the big time after the topsy-turvy nature of this campaign helps instil the belief that it is going to happen.
It’s personally given me enough hope and belief that we can do it anyway.It’s no forgone conclusion that we’ll even make it to the final, but I’ve got just got this nagging feeling that I can’t shake. Blind faith it isn’t, yet considering everything, the managerial upheaval, and the setbacks, going one step further and finally conquering the seductive siren that is Wembley almost feels like destiny, like this is how it was meant to be. It’s no forgone conclusion that we’ll even make it to the final, but I’ve got just got this nagging feeling that I can’t shake. Blind faith it isn’t, yet considering everything, the managerial upheaval, and the setbacks, going one step further and finally conquering the seductive siren that is Wembley almost feels like destiny, like this is how it was meant to be.
When have we ever done things the easy way? I don’t think we were ready to go up when we bombed against Norwich back in 2015, proved by the fact we went one better and did it the following season the preferred way.
But there’s just something about this team, the manager, our recent form, confidence appears to be flowing again. The bond of the players feels real, everyone has a smile on their faces, us as supporters are right there with the team and Pulis. Call me crazy, but it almost feels like it did under Aitor Karanka when the love affair was at its strongest, everyone was in it together.
So let’s embrace the rollercoaster of emotions that is the play-offs, because this is our time to show the country that Middlesbrough Football Club is every inch the Premier League outfit we know it is, that despite all the madness of this season we’re very much a team to be feared.
Let’s get Villa out the way, bring them on, we’ve nothing to be scared of. Then bring on Wembley and all she has to offer, we can do this!
Come on Boro!!